Photo: Mark W. Clark.
When it comes to the topic of officer safety, two personal pet peeves of mine have been and will continue to be the following:
- The dangerous deployments of spike strips. For our profession's latest tragedy—occurring just last week.
- The lack of ballistic gear for patrol officers.
On the subject of ballistic gear, I received an email recently from Stanley Cohen, a former Cincinnati police officer who is also a retired IUP Criminal Law Professor and an attorney. Stanley has made it his mission to get ballistic helmets for as many patrol officers as he can such as when he successfully lobbied earlier this year for the New Kensington (Pa.) Police Department to purchase several bullet resistant helmets with ballistic shields.
With his permission, I have heavily cribbed from our correspondence the following concerns he raised in the aftermath of the assassination of San Diego Police Officer Jeremy Henwood less than two weeks ago. Stanley opened with this:
Could you please help me by answering the questions below:
Officer Henwood of the San Diego Police Department was shot in the head and killed in his cruiser yesterday at about 5:30 p.m. He was not wearing a ballistic face shield/helmet, which would likely have saved his life.
The shooter was in an Audi that was involved in a shooting in El Cajon about 15 or 20 miles away around 5:22 p.m. El Cajon is in the San Diego County and connected to the city by major highways. An "all points" broadcast of the shooting and the suspect was put out shortly thereafter.
The suspect was seen driving south on I-5 toward San Diego. This was presumably broadcast on the radio to all police officers, including Henwood's cruiser.
1. Is it likely that Henwood heard the "all points" broadcast on his cruiser's radio?
2. If he did hear it, would he have been justified in placing a ballistic face shield/helmet on in case he confronted the shooter? An officer should prepare to deal with and take measures to protect his life from a highly possible threat or danger.
3. In retrospect, should Henwood have placed a ballistic face shield/helmet on his head while sitting in his cruiser, assuming that it would have saved his life?
Thanks for any help. The information can be used in developing policy in the future for when a ballistic face shield should be worn.
I offered Stanley my own intuitions, which were largely in accord with his suspicions, then received the following reply from him:
The majority of officers I consulted feel that Henwood probably had heard the broadcast. Assuming he had heard it and assuming he knew his location and the location of the shooting in El Cajon 15 or so miles away and that his location and El Cajon were connected by major interstate highways with high speed limits, had he thought about how fast the shooter could be at his location? Had he considered that if he put the face shield and helmet on just in case the shooter came by his location? Had he considered that if he was wrong and the shooter did not show up at his location, there would be nothing lost on his part (the most he would have had the face shield on in the cruiser would be one half hour)? Had he considered that if he was right and the shooter was at his location within one half hour after the shooting in El Cajon and that he would engage the shooter in a firefight and that, without a face shield and helmet on in place and in the ready position, he could be shot in the head and never see his children or wife and they would never see him and grow up without his love?
I would like to believe that he would have chosen the course of having it on and be wrong and have worn it for nothing. But of course, we now know that he would have been right and when the shooter fired into Henwood's cruiser, his face shield and helmet would have stopped the bullets and he would have been able to return fire and that he would have survived and gone home to his wife and children.
I hope you are able to write about and promote the idea that police and police administrators should immediately buy and equip their officers with the face shield and equipment before the dead officers from head shots increase beyond the current 891 good cops. Twenty-six have been killed by head shots in 2011 and at the current rate the total number should increase. Lives could be saved if officers everywhere have a face shield and helmet in the cruiser and sound policy for when to put it on.
I want to be clear about this: Stanley is not criticizing Officer Henwood one iota. He is merely trying to encourage our profession to do all it can to avail its heroes whatever equipment it can to prevent a similar tragedy from happening in the future. Would Officer Henwood have donned a ballistic helmet had he known the suspect was last seen in his direction? I don't know. But I do know that he should at least have been afforded the chance to have used one.
This is not the first time that Stanley and I have corresponded on ballistic helmets, as we have shared our opinions with one another since at least 2007. The difference between us is that Stanley has actually done a lot more constructive work to actually getting something done about the matter. And I have zero doubt that more than one cop will be extremely thankful for his efforts and the in-roads he has made.
As noted in my August 2011 feature on mitigating threats ("Line-of-Duty Deaths: Managing Risk"), the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has recently acquired ballistic helmets for its patrol personnel. While there are still a lot of shit-stupid practices within my alma mater, LASD has a deserved reputation for emphasizing officer safety and equipping its personnel accordingly (I hear that it has even replaced all of its antiquated shotguns).
I hope other agencies will follow the examples of New Kensington and Los Angeles County in procuring ballistic helmets for their personnel. Certainly, they could do worse things with their money.
Like purchasing spike strips.